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the complete computer scientist

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue September, September 1 - September 30, 2000 | BY Kirk Templeton 


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      I was pleased to read Dr. Wulf's remarks on the desirability of greater interpenetration between the Humanities and engineering in education. As the director of Wind Mountain Institute, an organization working to establish just such an educational institution, it was especially gratifying to learn that these issues are recognized by the President of the NAE. As Dr. Wulf points out, one of the strengths of Computer science is its great intellectual scope. This has occurred in part because the hotbeds of intellectual activity in the field have been (and continue to be) outside of the formal academic world. People involved with computers have been able to work without regard to the artificial constraints imposed by the structure of separate academic disciplines. As Computer science assumes a more prominent and influential role in the academic world as a whole, we should find ways to incorporate this openness into our educational structure.

      We should also broaden the scope of the education of engineers to include more of the humanities. Since we are the stewards of a technology that is becoming increasingly pervasive in all aspects of human life, it is incumbent upon us to ground ourselves in a fundamental understanding of the global human community that we influence by our decisions. This includes not only design decisions but also the policy decisions for which we are called upon to give counsel. We have the example of the atomic physicists before us to show what may happen when "pure" science and engineering are pursued with insufficient regard for the wisdom to be found in the humanities.

      This is especially important because, as Dr. Wulf notes, by the very nature of our intellectual training and practical work, we are placed to be more aware of underlying developments in the evolution of human ideas that are as yet poorly understood by the mainstream. Dr. Wulf rightly names G�del's Theorem as an example. Another of even greater portent is quantum physics, and not only because of the technologies currently being researched at Oxford, Stanford and elsewhere. Neils Bohr remarked that anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory on first acquaintance could not possibly understand it. One way of describing what he meant is to say that just as classical physics lends itself to a materialistic context of explanation for the natural world, quantum physics lends itself to an idealistic one. As software engineers, our entire craft consists of creating intangible structures that achieve tangible ends. We are well placed to bring a fuller understanding of the revolutionary implications of 20th century physics and mathematics because our profession requires us to be up to our elbows in them on a daily basis. By and large, the rest of the world (especially the rest of the academic world) slumbers on under Newton's potent spell. We have much to contribute throughout the academic world.

      At the same time we have much to learn, integrate and incorporate. The philosophy of Wind Mountain Institute, for example, is not only to integrate Computer science with the Humanities, but to extend the scope of 21st Century education to include the body as well as the mind, with emphasis of the arts as a corollary: We believe that Dr. Feynman's drumming was not incidental to his genius, but essential to it. We also incorporate traditions of mind/body integration drawn from non-Western sources. For us the seamless global web of communication supports traffic in both directions.

      As Dr. Wulf remarks, such programs inevitably extend the duration of formal education. But a period of formal education lasting 10 or more years is not unreasonable when biotechnology will be pushing the average lifespan above the century mark, which is fast becoming a confident prediction of our cousins in that field of engineering. In addition, there is no reason why the productive professional life of engineers could not begin while they are still in school, and plenty of reasons why it should. The craft aspect of software engineering was historically taught on an apprenticeship basis and, to a large extent in industry, still is. At the telecommunications firm where I work, there is a very active and pervasive, if currently informal, relationship of this sort between a community of software engineers and the computer science department of the local university where many of them graduated. This sort of relationship is not at all uncommon, and budgetary constraints alone argue that the professional and academic sectors of the Computer science community will become increasingly interdependent. It is not inconceivable that the software engineering community will establish its own colleges, or acquire them. It is imperative that such institutions teach the humanities as part of the engineering curriculum, and desirable that they include curricula to develop the entire personality of their students: body, mind and spirit. The professional communities and enterprises that do so will garner by far the most productive, creative, and effective engineers. It is encouraging that a member of our profession of Dr. Wulf's stature is so alive to this opportunity and imperative.

-- Kirk Templeton


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